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WLHS community in shock after the loss of Cooper Hill and Antonio Caballero, who were killed in a car crash Saturday



Photo Credit: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Flowers were left on the sign in front of West Linn High School, where students and staff are mourning the loss of Cooper Hill and Antonio Caballero. Less than a year after losing two teens in a car crash, West Linn is reeling once again in the face of tragedy.

West Linn High School students Cooper Hill and Antonio Caballero were killed in a car crash in the Columbia River Gorge on Saturday. Hill and Caballero were both juniors.

“Obviously our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of both boys,” WLHS Principal Lou Bailey said in a statement released the day after the crash. “Right now I know we all are in disbelief, numb, heartbroken and devastated by this tragedy.” HILLCABALLERO

Investigators said three cars and nine people were involved in the crash, which happened shortly before noon on Highway 14 near Milepost 54 in Washington. The first two vehicles carried a total of eight WLHS students, including Hill and Caballero, while the third vehicle involved had just the driver.

WLHS staff and district administrators began providing support to students the day of the accident. A Sadie Hawkins dance had been scheduled at the high school that night, but plans for that event gave way to a spontaneous vigil Saturday evening. According to Bailey, more than 300 students gathered at the school Saturday after the news broke.

A community vigil took place on the school’s football field Sunday evening. That gathering drew Wilsonville residents as well as people from Oregon City, where another teen was killed in a car crash over the weekend.

Students returning to the high school Monday morning were joined by top administrators from the West Linn-Wilsonville School District and about 30 additional counselors who are trained in crisis management and grief support, including WL-WV’s director of student services, Jennifer Spencer-Iiams.

The school day started, Bailey said, with a 7 a.m. staff meeting that included all the teachers who had Caballero and Hill in their classes.

“We met with them at 7, to give them a moment to breathe a little bit and to find out what they needed,” Bailey said.

That meeting was followed by a full staff meeting before the school day began. Teachers were given a script to read to all students in first-period classes. Teachers who felt unable to read the script were supported by counselors.

As students began to fill the school, the mood was somber.

“It’s obviously the tragedy and the memory of what we went through last year,” Bailey said. “’Numb’ just seems to be the word.”

A secure room was made available to students who needed a place to escape.

“We opened the Forum as a place for kids, in case kids needed space or time to just be alone or in small groups,” Bailey said. “There have been a lot of adults on campus. We’re checking in with teachers after each period.”

On Monday night, a joint vigil was held at Clackamette Park in Oregon City to honor the memories of the West Linn and Oregon City students.

In an email to The Tidings, Jack Holland, a junior and good friend of both Hill and Caballero, said that “words are not enough to describe these young men.”

Holland remembered Caballero for his big heart — “genuinely one of the nicest people you could ever meet” — and popularity amongst the entire student body.

“There was just something about him that no one else had,” Holland said. “All the girls loved him. His smile could light up any room.”

Hill also was universally beloved at WLHS, according to Holland, and known best for his sense of humor.

“Cooper was one of the funniest kids I know,” Holland said. “And anyone at West Linn can back me up on that. ... Cooper could make the saddest person smile.”

Of both Hill and Caballero, Holland said, “You couldn’t find anyone at our school who disliked them. They were liked by all.”

The loss of Hill and Caballero comes just eight months after the deaths of two other West Linn teenagers in June. Hayden Soyk, a recent WLHS graduate, and Maddi Higgins, a junior at the time, were in a single-vehicle, speed-related crash on Petes Mountain Road near West Linn.

‘Nothing to stop the force of the crash’

Washington State Police Trooper William Finn said that Hill, Caballero and two other passengers were driving in a Honda Accord when the Chevy Cruz in front of them missed a turn and stopped in the middle of the road. The Honda was able to stop before hitting the Chevy, but a Jeep Wrangler struck the Honda from behind and pushed it into the Chevy.

“Due to the speed and large bumper (of the Jeep), the bumper intruded through the trunk and into the rear of the passenger compartment,” Finn said in a press release.

Hill and Caballero were in the backseat of the Honda when it was struck by the Jeep. One of the boys was pronounced dead at the scene, while the other died on the way to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

Two other boys in the Honda suffered non-life-threatening injuries and were transported to Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, according to Finn. One passenger in the Chevy also experienced minor back pain and was hospitalized as a precaution.

Police said marijuana and glass pipes were found in the Chevy, but neither alcohol nor drugs were involved in the crash.

The driver of the Jeep, 35-year old Michael Calarco, of Portland, was cited for second degree negligent driving.

“The Skamania County prosecuting attorney was called to the scene to evaluate and discuss any possibility of felony charges with troopers,” Finn said in the release. “However after much discussion, investigators and the prosecuting attorney decided not to charge any driver criminally with regards to the collision.”

Neither Calarco nor the driver of the Chevy Cruz were injured in the crash. The driver of the Chevy faces charges related to possession of marijuana.

Because potential drug charges were involved, police declined to name any of the eight juveniles involved in the crash. The deaths of Hill and Caballero were confirmed Sunday by Bailey.

Though some have speculated that the Jeep was operating with an illegal bumper, Finn said that was not the case.

“It was still within specifications and legal within our state law,” Finn said. “That was not a factor in this crash on why these two young men died ... any time you have a much larger vehicle strike a much smaller vehicle, that’s what we have here. The bumper mashed with the trunk and there was nothing to stop the force of the crash.”

Supporting kids after tragedy

In the wake of Saturday’s fatal accident, school counselors throughout West Linn and Wilsonville have been available to students at West Linn High School. Other students, including younger children, may also be aware of the tragedy. These strategies can help parents discuss questions, concerns and fears raised by children of all ages.

  • Be sensitive about whether children need or want to talk. Be willing to bring up the event if your child is reluctant to.
  • Ask about your children’s reactions and accept those feelings as stated. Resist the temptation to minimize the pain, deny the feelings or give advice. Helpful responses include “Tell me more about that” and “I wonder if other things are worrying you.”
  • Answer questions concretely and briefly, especially with younger children. Allow silence and processing time after a statement.
  • Do not compare death to sleep or any other state of consciousness. Sleep is regenerative and necessary for health, yet children may become fearful and end up sleep-deprived if adults use that comparison.
  • Realize that children may seem to move in and out of the grief process, yet emotions like sadness, anxiety and fear are very intense for them. Encourage them to be active and noisy and celebrate life in whatever way they can. There are no “right” and “wrong” ways to grieve.
  • Source: “Supporting Your Child After News of a Loss,” Crisis Management Institute, cmionline.com.

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